Given the rapidly developing situation in Ukraine and the sweeping sanctions aimed at derailing Russia’s economy, Moscow has been mulling over its opportunities of making another pivot to the so-called Global East. Most of the Asia-Pacific forms an integral part of the mentioned area. The goal of this piece is to determine the tendencies intrinsic to this shift in Russian foreign policy and evaluate Russia’s resources in this direction, specifically focusing on the role of Russia-China “no limits” partnership. Regardless of the shared values underlined in the joint statement by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, it is argued that such principles as pragmatism and expediency will dominate the relations between Beijing and Moscow. Moreover, the same can be extrapolated to Russia’s ties with its other partners in the region.
In 2022, much like some eight to ten years ago, the Russian Federation seems rather assured in its decision to make its “turn to the East” (lit. поворот на Восток). This time, the distressing circumstances and international environment in general appear quite conducive to this foreign policy shift.
Russia is naturally attempting to redirect its external efforts to the Asia-Pacific as opposed to the Euro-Atlantic macroregion. Indeed, the ongoing active phase of the Ukrainian conflict has resulted in a clear divide between the Global West and the “Global Rest”, or “Global East” (it is debatable whether such a term as “Global South” would be appropriate here). The second iteration of Russia’s Asia pivot takes place roughly a decade after the first edition (which, in turn, almost coincided with Obama’s administration making a similar move). Nevertheless, the semantics of this realignment are yet to be determined, thus, it would be vital to critically evaluate the state of play and forge concrete policy recommendations aimed at promoting mutually beneficial engagement.
“The Orient is a Riddle”
The subtleties of dealing with the Asian partners in a broader sense can be exemplified by a famous Russian catchphrase in the subheading. It should be noted that some regions of the Global East (e.g. Middle East) are consciously omitted here to somewhat simplify this convoluted equation. As a matter of fact, despite visible holism, Global East’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine has not been uniform. Pronounced neutrality of China and India (sometimes described as “strategic silence” in the latter case) is conspicuous, but these examples are far from comprehensive. As such, Japan, Singapore and—to a lesser extent—South Korea, followed their Western partners’ suit in establishing a sanctions regime and cutting economic ties with Russia. The instance of Micronesia severing its diplomatic relations with Moscow could also be cited, even if ostensibly negligible. Still, those are the only exceptions in the patchwork of Asian political landscape, as most of the regional powers have adopted a wait-and-see position.
In this mosaic, Russia’s background data does not look entirely hopeless. The Russian Federation, which historically hardly had any colonial track record in the Asia-Pacific, is prominently perceived by local nations in a different manner than the former metropolitan states. Understanding the hierarchical, government-oriented system incorporated into the Asian societies (at times labelled as a component of so-called Asiatic mode of production) is arguably easier for Russia than for most Western countries. More pluses include geographic proximity, potential of channel trade flows and participating in supply chains, providing connectivity and seamlessness between the global regions (e.g. by Northern Sea Route). All of this, combined with years of fruitful interaction with some key players (which key players in particular) in the Asia-Pacific, could in fact be a steppingstone for strengthening Moscow’s case.
However, for these ambitions to be realized, one has to admit the mistakes made during the first “turn to the East”, which most of all suffered from lack of consistent actions, as the far-reaching plans have never been supported by any strategic papers or at least a thought-through roadmap, hardly even a guiding principles document. Nonetheless, Russia can boast strategic partnerships with some of the major Asian powers, and relations with increasingly influential China could teach some lessons for furthering Moscow’s standing in the region.
Boundaries of “no limits”
In truth, it would appear that out of all the Asian partners, Russia has primarily concentrated on China. The current consolidation between Kremlin and Zhongnanhai resembles a vow of an eternal brotherhood at an early stage of the Cold War (中苏人民是永久弟兄 in Mandarin). The joint statement made by Presidents Xi and Putin on February 4, 2022, can be assessed as a pinnacle of this bonding. It would be, however, premature to call this accord an alliance, let alone a military one. In the ongoing developments, China, on its part, has been struggling to balance on a fine line between avoiding accusations of directly helping Russia and sticking to its commitment that a strategic partnership presupposes.
On the conceptual level, neither Russia nor China accept the Indo-Pacific framing used by some regional powers (Australia, Japan and India in the first place), as well as European countries and—naturally—the U.S. Same applies to ideologemes such as “rules-based order” or, in particular, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Eurasianism as an overarching school of thought in Russian international studies implies practical attempts to create convergence between BRI (or even RCEP) and Eurasian Economic Union. It is probably too early to judge whether such endeavors can be considered successful. That said, it is the pragmatic approach that dominates the bilateral interaction between the two states. i.e. partaking in formats such as BRICS or SCO allows both countries to coordinate their standpoints without having to harmonize on every single item on the agenda.
How to Engage Effectively: Multilateralism and Diversification
While there are definitely some points of intersection in the relations between Russia and Asian nations (not excluding China), one of the most pressing questions in this regard is how exactly the region could benefit from a more pronounced Russia’s presence in the Asia-Pacific—and vice versa. Namely, what Moscow offer can to the regional powers and smaller states and how it can reinstate a more viable and robust posture.
On a prescriptive note, it would be logical for Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to devise a full-fledged Asia-Pacific strategy, to help partners get a clear idea of Russia’s priorities. It could also be a document of a different order, still it should be of operational and performative nature rather than a doctrinal one. Certainly, it might not be as tendentious as Indo-Pacific strategies or guidelines produced by European states. It is imperative, however, to define the unique niches and competitive advantages (if any), pursuing proactiveness instead of passive expectation of other counterparts’ initiatives. This would assist in overcoming the inertia of bureaucracy that in no small part plagued the “Turn to the East 1.0.”
Among other practical recommendations are facilitating Track 1.5 and 2 dialogue, also fostering people-to-people exchange, traditionally welcomed by the Asian societies. One of such areas is the interest in relatively inexpensive opportunities to train specialists and engineers in Russia. The idea of ASEAN centrality could also facilitate the acceptance of Russia in the Southeast Asian subregion, which forms the core of the Asia-Pacific as a whole. ASEAN’s sourness over the recent summit in Washington represents a chance for the Russian Federation to gain a foothold as a third party amidst the U.S.-China rivalry. Taking advantage of Russia’s observer status at NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) is also feasible, Moscow could revitalize its participation in a number of regional bodies, not simply taking these gatherings as a chance to get a protocol photo. It could help institutionalize the existing momentum, simultaneously capitalizing on shared vision of the regional affairs. To prove this viewpoint, Indonesia insisting on Russian President’s in-person visit to the G20 summit to be held in November 2022 is symptomatic per se. It is also worthwhile to invest in bilateral connections, diversify the corresponding directions without putting all eggs into one basket (that is, to avoid focusing on China only), while also understanding that such cooperation is a two-lane street in itself, and should be implemented on a peer-to-peer, equal basis.
Acknowledging that a deep rift with the Global West leaves Russia considerably less space for maneuvering in intergovernmental organizations and fora, it would be necessary to work out and positive and substantive agenda rather than vociferous declarations resulting in “turn away from the West” without any actual pivot to Asia. Taking a leaf out of the Sino-Russian ties book, such novel bearing should be less focused on preaching and evaluative judgments, rather endorsing pragmatism as a cornerstone of cooperation. At the same time, the advice to practice the diplomatic culture of humility, inherent to the Asian traditions, is reasonable, as condescending attitude will readily lead to cracks in the relations which are difficult to mend.
From our partner RIAC
Russian and Latin American Parliamentarians Share Thoughts on Geopolitical Situation and Economic Cooperation
Russia is certainly back to Latin America, the backyard to the United States. In this fast-growing multipolar world, Russia is assertively stamping its feet, intensifying serious coordinated efforts, this time in Latin America. And the State Duma, the lower house of Russian legislators, holds the lead towards off-setting the dominance of unipolarism and U.S. hegemony, ‘authoritarianism and exceptionalism’ and most importantly to strengthen its post-Soviet presence especially due to the rapidly changing global political situation.
On September 29 – October 2, the first international Parliamentary Conference ‘Russia – Latin America’ was held in Moscow at the initiative of the State Duma. More than 200 participants, including parliamentarians from different countries of Latin America and the Caribbean attended. In March 2023 for instance, Russia held the second inter-parliamentary conference ‘Russia-Africa’ and that was followed by a summit late July. Now late September was the turn of Latin America.
Russia has long ago recognized the high potentials in the region, so it is reviewing its weaknesses and strength, and attempting to take more strategic measures in consolidating policy fixtures with ‘friendly’ countries Latin America. As experts speculated, it may continue attempts to circumvent sanctions, form new alliances and agree on more investment while pushing for expanding trade in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the opening session on September 29, emphasized the fact that the presence of high-ranking legislators from Latin America and the Caribbean re-affirmed the common desire and willingness to develop a comprehensive beneficial partnership with Russia. “We are convinced that promoting direct dialogue between parliaments will open up opportunities for deepening cooperation and expanding it through new areas of joint activity,” he told the gathering of parliamentarians.
Putin, whose speech resonates with such historical names Salvador Allende, Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as selfless fighters for justice and social equality, ceased the chance to utterly slammed United States’ military aid for Ukraine and economic sanctions on Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and other developing nations in across the world. He vehemently argues for wholesale reforms at the global financial institutions, a faster transition to settlements in national currencies, and the creation of channels for financial and banking cooperation, as well as of new transport and logistics chains – all this facilitates the further development of mutual trade.
Referring to BRICS is an organisation which provides a forum for coordinating approaches and developing mutually acceptable solutions based on sovereignty, independence and respect for one another, Putin said Russia would support Latin America to join BRICS. Russia takes over the rotating chairship from January 2024.
Putin holds the view that, in this new polycentric architecture, countries of Latin America, that have enormous economic potential and human resources and want to pursue a sovereign, independent foreign policy, will have a leading role in the world. Russia hopes the countries in the Latin American region to make progressive and dynamic developments and further strengthen their positions in the world economy and politics. It follows that Russian politicians always advocated for Latin America, for its unity, strength and diversity.
Today with the changes taking place around the world, Latin American countries are showing a pattern in the political approach to may significant issues in the process of support to the formation of a multipolar system. In order to achieve this and their individual national goals, parliaments are expected to play its part. Apparently, the role of parliamentary diplomacy in strengthening cooperation between Russia and Latin American countries, and there is really nothing new, as it known to cut most notably across the board: in politics and security, as well as socioeconomic and humanitarian spheres.
In the Latin American region, Russia has few economic footprints, and there are huge possibilities to create new business, engage in scientific and cultural exchanges and increase tourism in both directions. It currently has a nuclear research and technology centre is being built in Bolivia, that joint biopharmaceutical enterprises are expanding their activities in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and that a metallurgical plant is being upgraded in Cuba.
In his speech, Putin also pointed to Russian-Latin American projects in medicine and public health, and biological and epidemiological security are being implemented with good results. During the coronavirus pandemic, Russia was among the first to supply Latin America with large shipments of vaccines, test systems, sanitary and hygiene products, and other medical and humanitarian goods.
Statistics show that nearly half a million Russians have fully integrated into the society in Latin American region, compared Latinos in the Russian Federation. It explicitly points to the extent how closed has become Russian society, especially being vocal on multipolarism. Simply, both inbound and outbound tourism are down, despite Russia claims to have established visa-free travel system which currently includes 27 Latin American countries.
There were roundtable sessions with themes including – Equal and mutually beneficial economic cooperation: role of the parliaments; Development of humanitarian ties between Russia and Latin America: contribution of the parliaments; Just multipolar world: role of the parliamentary diplomacy; and Security for all: position of the parliaments.
On the enhancement of economic cooperation, trade turnover between Russia and Latin American countries has increased by about a quarter and now amounts almost to US$20 billion. “We are convinced that a new world order is being built, and Russia is one of the pillars of this order, one of the main pillars that contribute to the development of multilateral approaches and establishment of mutually beneficial relations,” emphasized the Special Representative of the President of Nicaragua for Russian Affairs Laureano Ortega Murillo.
In his contribution to that, Félix Martínez Suárez, the head of the Commission on Economic Affairs of the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba, spoke about cooperation between Russia and Cuba. In 2023, exchanges and visits between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Cuba at the parliamentary level were significant. “There was a large delegation of parliamentarians with him. The agenda was intense: together with the Cuban side, six relevant working groups were created to address all the important issues of strategic bilateral cooperation in the main areas of our economies. These are finance, investment, agriculture, tourism, energy, education and legislation,” he said at the session in the State Duma.
On countering US interference in internal affairs, it was noted that in March 2023, the President of the Russian Federation approved a foreign policy strategy. And one of the priorities is cooperation on a mutually beneficial basis with Latin American countries. Security issues are key issues today, they are important for the whole world.
Deputy Chairwoman of the State Duma, Irina Yarovaya, in her speech, emphasized the special importance for Russia of cooperation with those countries in the region, where the United States of America and its allies are trying to interfere in the internal affairs.
“Nicaragua, like many other countries, was a victim of invasions and robbery by the Yankee imperialists and their allies. They have impoverished our people by destabilizing, financing terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and arms trafficking,” said Filiberto Jacinto Rodríguez López, Chairman of the Committee on Peace, Defence, Internal Affairs and Human Rights of the National Assembly of the Republic of Nicaragua.
Chairman of the Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs of the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba José Luis Toledo Santander recalled that “Cuban society has been living under a monstrous blockade by the United States and its allies for 70 years, and they are trying to destroy our country.”
Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, noted the contribution to the development of relations between Russia and Venezuela made by the Presidents Vladimir Putin and Nicolás Maduro. The task of the parliaments is to reach an absolutely new level of dialogue, to provide legislative support for the implementation of the agreements reached by the heads of states, according to Volodin.
“We have great opportunities to make our own contribution to the development of relations between our states, our nations. Venezuela and Russia are connected not only by ties of friendship and long-standing relations. We are counterparts and like-minded people, we stand for a multipolar world, building a just world order,” emphasized the Chairman of the State Duma.
“The world is not unipolar anymore. There is no more global policeman who told us what we should do and with whom we should cooperate. Just like you, we stand for a multipolar world – a world based on the principles of cooperation, respect, respect for the right to independence and sovereignty,” said Jorge Rodríguez Gómez.
“We are supporters of building a multipolar world, we stand for a just world order and believe that every country should have the opportunity to develop and plan its future,” emphasized Volodin at the meeting with the President of the National Congress of the Republic of Honduras Luis Redondo Guifarro. And also with Brazilian Veneziano Vital do Rêgo Segundo Neto.
Volodin held special bilateral meeting the President of the National Assembly of People’s Power and the Council of State of Cuba Juan Esteban Lazo Hernández. Volodin recalled the first meeting of the Commission on Cooperation between the State Duma and the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba was held in Havana in April. Among the priority areas of joint projects between Russia and Cuba, included the extraction and processing of mineral resources, the production of cane sugar, tourism, and solar energy, humanitarian and education cooperation.
The emerging polycentric world is the right time to bolster the interparliamentary format of Russia’s relations with Latin American countries, so also with Asia and Africa. The development of parliamentarism has become one of the platforms to further in-depth discussions on a number of issues facing Russia in the changing world. Latin American parliamentarians gathered there for a four-day international forum (September 29 to October 2) at the initiative of the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russian Federation.
BRICS Cooperation Mechanism Gives Hand to Global South
The 15th BRICS summit has kicked off in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 22, and the following year will bring the summit to Kazan, the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan region.
As of now, more than 40 countries openly demonstrate their willingness to join the informal grouping, as the current BRICS host South Africa recently stated. In this respect, it’s worth asking what the BRICS is and what the BRICS is not.
The BRICS that started as a grouping of fast-growing economies not only withstood the test of time, but also fully transformed its identity since the first summit in 2009. Remaining an informal exclusive group, the BRICS pushes forward discussion on more than 30 distinct topics including several ones not presented in the agenda of the G20, namely regional security, tourism, and culture. It does not make the BRICS an alliance of any kind—it lacks formality including any form of sanctioning in a case of non-compliance with the decisions made on annual summits.
Neither the BRICS is a club for groundless discussions, as most of the multilateral decisions are implemented quite successfully, according to the results of a multi-year study conducted by a joint collective of Russia-Canada think-tanks, indicating average compliance surpassing 75 percent.
Also it would be too much to think of the BRICS in general and the BRICS-inspired multilateral institutions such as the New Development Bank—the group has never claimed to replace any of global organizations. The idea here is not to substitute but to compensate some of the most significant drawbacks of the international order.
The BRICS cannot promote obligatory decisions, but it has great potential in formulating the common ground in some spheres of high importance. I assume that the BRICS might be a suitable place to formulate new approaches to the Internet governance system reform, since the discussion on its key aspects (cybersecurity in particular) stagnates.
The abovementioned study shows that since the introduction of information technologies-related agenda to the BRICS in 2015, the average compliance score has surpassed 90 percent, indicating willingness of the member states to cooperate. China and Russia are the leading parties in this respect, contributing the most to the agenda development.
Taking into account a growing interest towards the BRICS from other countries of the world, it’s worth discussing the establishment of a new global partnership on the Internet governance reform with some “BRICS characteristics.” The BRICS might give a hand to those who would inevitably become the emerging forces in the Internet governance in decades to come, thanks to continuing economic transition and population growth—African and Latin American countries.
The brand-new partnership presents an attractive alternative to previously launched exclusive formats that mostly ignored the interests of the developing world. Voices from the Global South would grant recognition and support to the BRICS multilateral initiatives, among which might be the reform of some of the key Internet governance institutions including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Society, making them more transparent and accountable.
Also, the information security agenda might flourish without direct interference from the Western parties which intend to keep their privileged negotiation position during talks on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare.
Any tangible result is achievable if only the discussed agenda becomes the main working track within the broad BRICS agenda. South Africa’s presidency this year and forthcoming Russia’s presidency in 2024 will be a high time to start.
From our partner RIAC
How Putin’s Coup-Proofing Measures Have Undermined Russia’s War Effort in Ukraine
Authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir Putin are faced with a dilemma: they require their military forces to competently conduct campaigns against external enemies, but these same capabilities make them more capable of successfully initiating coups to remove the incumbent leader. Putin, like other leaders of his ilk, is forced to balance policies which promote competence in the armed forces with measures that ensure regime survival. The latter are referred to as ‘coup-proofing’ measures, the implementation of which, to some extent explain the underperformance of the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
Counterbalancing and Parallel Forces
The coup-proofing measure of most consequence to Russia’s military performance in Ukraine is ‘counterbalancing’. This involves the introduction of new security forces to counterbalance the military and each other. A splintered security sector filled with various armed groups are in competition with each other for funding, recruits, and supplies, as well as the ruling autocrat’s attention, which is ultimately vital for attaining the aforementioned resources.
Counterbalancing confers three advantages. Firstly, it promotes loyalty by encouraging competition and distrust between militarized factions who must demonstrate allegiance to the leader to secure resources. Secondly, it deters coups because the officers and senior figures distrust their counterparts in other organizations; and thirdly, it prevents the likelihood of a coup succeeding as it is more difficult for military and security forces operating under disparate chains of command to coordinate and cooperate effectively.
To quote, a 2017 paper appearing in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, ‘If coups are akin to coordination games, counterbalancing can be understood as an effort to add additional players to the game – actors who lack the incentive to move in concert with the others.’
Counterbalancing is rarely used in isolation and may be combined with other coup-proofing measures. For example, authoritarian leaders frequently favour loyalty over meritocracy when selecting staff for senior military and security positions.
Mercenaries as Parallel Forces
Several parallel armed groups exist outside of the Russian military’s chain of command. The most high-profile example is the use of mercenaries from Wagner Group, formerly led by Yevgeny Prigozhin until his demise in August 2023. Wagner Group employs an estimated 50,000 soldiers, 40,000 of which are believed to be released prison convicts. For Putin, the introduction of mercenaries to the war in Ukraine conferred several benefits including a degree of plausible deniability, less domestic blowback from casualties, and an alternative source of manpower which was especially valuable prior to the partial mobilization in September 2022.
From a coup-proofing perspective, the introduction of a private military company (PMC) with overlapping responsibilities to the regular military promoted greater competition between senior leaders. This rivalry was exacerbated by the contest for vital resources like ammunition, supplies and personnel.
The feud between Wagner’s late leader with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov was especially bitter. Prigozhin frequently levelled scathing criticism at the two men, and other senior military officers for their handling of the war, accusing them of stealing the credit for Wagner’s battlefield successes in Ukraine, and even attempting to sabotage the PMC’s efforts by withholding vital ammunition.
For a time, this suited Putin. Prigozhin was careful to avoid directly criticizing the Russian president himself which helped to deflect any blame Putin might receive from the public onto his generals. Moreover, Prigozhin’s actions appeared to fit a preestablished pattern in Russian politics whereby senior figures jostle against each other to secure the president’s favour.
There are several Russian PMCs in addition to Wagner Group. Konstantin Pikalov, once thought to be Prigozhin’s right hand man and the head of Wagner operations in Africa, heads his own mercenary group called ‘Convoy’, which were founded in occupied Crimea in Autumn 2022. Another group is ‘Redut’, which was likely formed to provide security for Russian-owned facilities in Syria, but it believed to have been one of the first PMCs to provide personnel during the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
The Russian energy giant Gazprom also has mercenaries in the guise of ‘private security organizations’, which energy companies were permitted to create after a new law was passed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in February 2023. It is unclear whether the various groups associated with Gazprom subsidiary Gazprom Neft will exclusively guard the company’s energy facilities or whether they will take on active combat roles in Ukraine.
Other Parallel Forces
Mercenaries are not the only parallel forces at play. In 2016, Putin formed the Rosgvardiya (National Guard) under the leadership of Viktor Zolotov, the president’s former bodyguard. The formation of the Rosgvariya entailed the reorganization of preexisting internal security forces into a new agency which directly reports to Putin. Ostensibly, the Rosgvardiya’s responsibilities largely concern public order, policing, and counterterrorism, but the 300,000 to 400,000 strong force certainly acts as a deterrent to would-be coup-plotters. The Rosgvardiya has also reportedly seen action in Ukraine.
Similar examples of counterbalancing can be seen in the intelligence sphere. Three of the country’s most important intelligence services, the GRU, the SVR, and the FSB, each have their own elite special forces contingents. Competition and mutual distrust between the three is rife due to a high degree of overlapping tasks and low degree of cooperation. The FSB have attracted a particularly high degree of rancour from the GRU and SVR because of its increasingly proactive role conducting operations beyond its domestic remit. Additionally, counterintelligence officers from the FSB are embedded directly within the armed forces to monitor signs of dissent.
Finally, there are parallel forces provided by the Russian republics. Just two days after the invasion of Ukraine, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, confirmed that the 141st Special Motorized Regiment – better known as the Kadyrovites – were operating in the country. The Kadyrovites are essentially a paramilitary organization loyal to Kadyrov, functioning as his private army.
Like Prigozhin, Kadyrov has been highly critical of the Russian military leadership but avoided levelling such critiques at Putin. By emphasizing the effectiveness of Chechen fighters over regular Russian forces, Kadyrov may have been hoping to make himself appear more indispensable to Putin.
How Coup-Proofing Degrades Military Effectiveness
The introduction of several players incentivized to hold each other in mutual suspicion is not conducive to an effective and unified war effort, as events in Ukraine have demonstrated. As explained by James M. Powell, coup-proofing ‘undermines the fighting capacity of a military by creating coordination challenges in the field.’ Unity of command is necessary for a coup to be effective, but it is just as necessary for conducting a war. The absence of unified command has thus jeopardized the entire Russian war effort.
The lack of a unified command structure was evident in the early stages of the war. In the first months following the invasion, Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies and analysts were unable to identify a single overall commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine. Instead, it was believed that separate formations were drawn from each of Russia’s four military districts and placed under the command of senior officers from each district, with Putin taking on an oversized role, sometimes reportedly giving orders to field formations. Last April, Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov was finally named as overall commander but there have been at least three reshuffles at the top since then.
Wagner’s increasing share of frontline duties further undermined unity of command, with Prigozhin and his mercenaries not subject to the authority of the regular armed forces. Tensions between Prigozhin and the miliary leadership culminated in Wager Group’s mutiny in June. A civil war or coup seemed momentarily possible in Russia until a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin was later killed in a plane crash in August removing him from the chessboard altogether, but his insubordination was a clear sign that Putin had miscalculated and allowed the rivalries simmering between the members of his inner circle to burn too hot.
Beyond Prigozhin’s dramatic rebellion, Coup-proofing has created other unintended consequences which have hindered Russia’s military efforts. An overemphasis on loyalty at the expense of competence coupled with fierce competition between the security and defence services have created incentive structures that have undermined honesty and integrity, inter-service cooperation, and professionalism.
These trends were identified by analysts as being particularly pervasive in the Russian intelligence community even before the invasion of Ukraine. For example, a 2021 Congressional Research Service report noted that ‘Agencies compete with each other for greater responsibilities, budgets, and political influence, often at the expense of other agencies.’ As Mark Galeotti puts it, ‘The competition for presidential approval is especially strong and has led to a perverse competition to tell the boss what they think he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.’ This culture likely incentivised the Russian intelligence community to provide briefings to Putin prior to the invasion that confirmed his preconceptions that Ukraine would offer little resistance.
It is equally questionable if the most competent officers have been granted the responsibility to lead Russia’s war on Ukraine. Sergei Surovikin, a veteran of several conflicts and broadly considered to be capable officer by most military analysts, was made the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine in October 2022. However, Surovikin was replaced in January the following year by Valery Gerasimov, despite the latter having already attracted much of the blame for implementing a faulty strategy in his role as the Chief of the General Staff. In August, Surovikin was then stripped of his role as the commander of the Russian aerospace forces due to suspicions that he was linked to the Wagner rebellion.
Other officers have met similar fates. On July 12, Major General Ivan Popov, who led the 58th Combined Arms Army stationed in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhya region, disclosed that he had been relieved of his command after he made complaints to Gerasimov regarding the lack of troop rotations. He also highlighted issues his soldiers were having with counterbattery radar and artillery reconnaissance. Popov’s dismissal indicates that senior military personnel are seemingly unable to report the facts on the ground to their superiors without facing charges of disloyalty or disciplinary action. Such a culture, especially within the Russian military’s highly hierarchal command structure will make it increasingly difficult for commanders to make informed decisions based on accurate information.
Thus far, Putin’s coup-proofing strategy has succeeded in fragmenting the Russian security elite sufficiently to secure his hold on power, despite Prigozhin’s short-lived insubordination. However, these same measures which have enabled Putin to safeguard his rule have seriously undermined Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. The constituent parts of Russia’s defence and security apparatuses fail to act as a whole and there is ample evidence that senior leaders have been promoted on the basis of perceived loyalty over competence. A culture of competition and distrust has hindered cooperation, coordination, and honesty, which has led to poor decision-making, the results of which have played out on the battlefields of Ukraine since February last year.
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